The Soul of Design

There is no better way to find out how people outside the design world view design than to check out books about the subject aimed at business readers. And, in the sphere of business gurudom, where a sought-after speaker can command $40,000 a lecture, there is no louder noise than Tom Peters, championed by The Economist as the “über-guru”.

Peters has his own series, Tom Peters Essentials – “crucial guides for reinventing your business” – with the same little picture of him on the cover, the spine, the back and, in case you haven’t quite taken it in, the back flap. The book on design begins with a startlingly bold claim that proves to be entirely typical of Peters’ bombastic attempts to shock and awe aspiring captains of industry who come to him for enlightenment.

“I, not the Greek philosophers, have discovered the ‘Seat of the Soul.’ At least in enterprise,” Peters writes. “And it is . . . Great Design.” He alone among the management gurus writes extensively about design, he claims. “Why? IT TURNS ME ON.” (Peters’ emphasis.) As with their leave-nothing-to-chance approach to the author’s publicity photos, these books work by repetition. First you state something, then you state it again slightly differently, then you recap with a list of key points. Peters uses an entire page to drive home his amazing revelation about the soulfulness of design. “Design = Soul. Believe it.”

Well, I would like to believe it, I really would, but the more that Peters shouts and brags about it, the less I want anything to do with this vision of design. I simply can’t match my personal experience of design, as something you piece together for yourself because these are the things you value and want in your world, with all his exhortation and bluster. Peters’ book would probably dumbfound any designer of any sensitivity who read it, though it isn’t aimed at designers and that’s why we should be concerned. As design becomes an increasingly public issue, with business leaders and politicians sprinkling the word around like magic dust, so its uses and meanings are being defined by narrowly commercial ways of thinking. Designers, who have rarely been given the chance to explain their work to the public on their own terms, find themselves reduced to an instrumental role, delivering design conceived only to satisfy business imperatives and marketing prescriptions.

By his own admission, Peters has been surprisingly slow to wake up to the power of a discipline that he now believes should be at the heart and soul of any business enterprise. He is not artistic, he says, and dropped out of architecture school to study civil engineering. He has been working as a management consultant since the mid-1970s and is now in his 60s, but it was only ten years ago, he reports, that he started to become more “design sensitive”. What triggered this? “My secret: Waking up. Becoming alert,” he reveals, with his usual modesty. As any wide-awake designer and quite a few business people could have told him, design was important for business long before the mid-1990s. One has to wonder what took him so long and why he now sees himself as an authority on design.

Peters’ view of design is, in reality, utterly familiar. Design is about the difference between being cool and uncool. It’s about creating awesome experiences and products with dreamlike power. It’s about making an emotional connection. The book trots out all the usual role models: Nike, Virgin, Google, Armani (“We become Armani”), Porsche (“I AM MY PORSCHE”). Mere physical presence won’t cut it. Companies must create products with a metaphysical presence. Don’t kid yourself that Starbucks sells coffee. What it sells is a whole Way of Life. “We must – all of us!” exclaims Peters, “come to grips, ‘strategically,’ with the fact that WINNERS IN THE NEW ECONOMY WILL BE … MASTERS OF THE DREAM BUSINESS.” And, make no mistake, “winning” is what it’s about. Peters enthuses about the billions of dollars at stake. He quotes a paean to tea from the founders of the American company Republic of Tea. “You might find all that to be a wheelbarrow load of crap,” he says. “I think instead of wheelbarrows filled with gold.”

Designers have been saying for years that they would like a place on the board and to be involved in companies’ strategic thinking. So it’s good that Peters urges his business readers to give designers a seat at the table, only he doesn’t follow his own advice in the book. He includes interviews about design with three “cool friends” – a journalist, a general manager at IDEO and a former vice-president of marketing at Starbucks. Not one of them is a designer. Maybe designers don’t have anything useful to say about the soul of design.

That’s certainly the way some people who work with designers seem to see it. “Design is far too important to be left to designers,” David Hepworth, publisher of Word magazine, recently suggested in The Guardian. The put-down appears to be catching on. Arnold Wasserman, chairman of the Idea Factory consultancy in San Francisco and Singapore, has used it, and so have others. Virginia Postrel, one of Tom Peters’ cool friends, goes a step further in her book The Substance of Style. “Aesthetics has become too important to be left to the aesthetes,” she advises. “To succeed, hard-nosed engineers, real estate developers, and MBAs must take aesthetic communication, and aesthetic pleasure, seriously.”

Postrel’s book, which is heavily American in its examples and outlook, has received less attention in the UK than it has in the US, but it remains a significant marker – not for what it reveals about design, but for what it reveals about attitudes to design outside the design world. Postrel was an economics columnist for The New York Times and some designers were understandably thrilled that someone in her position should speak so positively about design and the rise of aesthetic value. If you don’t know much about the subject then you might feel, like Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who wrote a blurb for the back of the book, that this is a “major new phenomenon”: that people – gasp! – care deeply about the look of things.

The Substance of Style is lively, well argued (in the main) and a lot less irritating than Peters’ over-amplified guide. Yet you still find yourself wondering where the author has been for the last 20 or 30 years. Postrel seems dazzled to find that sensory appeals are everywhere and becoming ever more prominent in our culture. She appears to think that it will come as news to learn that design provides pleasure and meaning as well as function. Meanwhile, the same old view of designers as somehow not to be trusted with design sometimes leaks out. At a conference, Postrel sees a venture capitalist addressing a crowd of graphic designers. “The role of design is to make life enjoyable,” he tells them. “The designers generally agree,” notes Postrel. This makes it sound like the designers needed the entrepreneur to set them straight, while her use of “generally” implies that there were some who disagreed with the proposition, unlikely as that sounds.

“Designers and other cultural opinion leaders used to believe that a single aesthetic standard was right – that style was a manifestation of truth, virtue, even sanity,” writes Postrel. When was this exactly? Postrel makes it seem like the recent past. I have been writing about design since the mid-1980s and at no point during that time was this true in Britain. Nor, I would suggest, was it the case in the US. Of course, individual designers do have their sometimes dogmatic preferences, but these coexist within a marketplace that thrives on aesthetic diversity and a multiplicity of competing styles. Postmodern cultural analysis has explained all this, yet there is no entry for postmodernism in Postrel’s index, though her worldview is shaped by a business-friendly version of some of this thinking – “We are constantly exposed to new aesthetic material, ripe for recombination” – and she makes an explicit passing reference to postmodern irony and camp.

The same mysteriously imprecise view of history occurs when Postrel says, “You no longer have to be a Medici to enjoy aesthetic abundance … Not only monuments but the humblest of objects increasingly embody fine design.” Again, this makes it sound like something that has only happened in the last few years. Abundance is a relative term, but people in wealthy countries, not least the Americans, have been enjoying “aesthetic abundance” for many decades. Postrel makes no mention of American writer Thorstein Veblen’s famous Theory of the Leisure Class, the book that gave us the term “conspicuous consumption” more than 100 years ago, even though she challenges the idea, first proposed by Veblen, that excessive consumption serves to signal social status. Veblen’s well-heeled gentleman connoisseur spent his time cultivating his “aesthetic faculty”, the better to learn “how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way.”

It’s no wonder that Tom Peters envies The Substance of Style because this deeply political book is an ode of joy to the way we live now that glides cheerfully past any problems of waste, sustainability or global fairness. The book can be interpreted as a clarion call to business to embrace design’s profit-generating potential and as a green light for unlimited material production. According to Postrel, critics of consumption are misguided because they fail to see that people are not engaged in games of social one-upmanship when they buy luxury goods. They are simply indulging in a perfectly natural search for aesthetic pleasure.

The limitations of Postrel’s analysis are most clearly exposed in her discussion of toilet brushes. She runs through some of the brushes available in the US: Michael Graves’ $8 brush from Target, a $14 Oxo brush, Philippe Starck’s Excalibur at $32, an Alessi brush for $55. The options continue all the way up to $400 – for those with money to flush down the toilet. Postrel argues that such purchases cannot be explained as a desire to impress others (as clothes can, for instance) because few people will ever see our toilet brushes. Therefore, these highly designed items must be acquired simply on the basis of their sensory appeal. “We buy aesthetic models because we like what we see and feel,” she says. That may be so but there are countless, better opportunities to satisfy our aesthetic inclinations.

If we feel dismayed at the possibility of having to throw a bare brush under the sink, then perhaps we have become a little too enmeshed in our role as good consumers. Step back and toilet brushes as the focus of aesthetic satisfaction just look frivolous. Is it even true that this has nothing to do with a person’s sense of status? Postrel, like many design watchers, is preoccupied by design as an expression of personal identity. “Identity is the meaning of surface,” she says. So when you buy a toilet brush as a design lover, you are confronted by a small dilemma of selfhood. Are you really going to let yourself down by buying something you know to be poorly designed? No point in spending all that money on the dining table and chairs if you are going to scupper the aesthetic effect in the bathroom. Visitors whose opinion you care about might see the offending item. People who take this to the limit and equip their homes with a brace of $400 toilet brushes are making a statement about who they think they are in the scheme of things. The brushes are simply less visible than their Armani outfits or Porsches.

Postrel acknowledges that people enjoy sensory appeals, while fearing manipulation. This is a key point, though it’s not one that business advocates of design are disposed to explore with any openness. If aesthetic appeals engage us at a pre-rational level, then they offer a perfect way to encourage us to buy products and services. Again, there is nothing especially new about this insight. Advertising has understood for years that the way to influence consumers is by emotional stimulation rather than information or argument. “Everybody experiences far more than he understands,” Marshall McLuhan observes in Understanding Media. “Yet it is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behaviour, especially in collective matters of media and technology, where the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effect upon him.” This has become something of a mantra for exponents of “experience design”, but they tend to leave out the cautionary words that follow “behaviour”. What they like is the idea of experience as unconscious persuasion.

The more design is seen as a magic ingredient with the power to melt away customer resistance and win undying loyalty to the brand, the more it seems in danger of losing what consultants who dream of wheelbarrows laden with gold like to call its “soul”. This will have profound consequences for the way we think about design and what we expect it to do for us, and this can already be seen in the views of design promoted at an institutional level. The Design Council website has a series of texts introducing various kinds of design and one of these, under the heading “Emerging Issues”, covers the field of experience design. The author, Ralph Ardill, who worked at design and branding agency Imagination for 12 years and runs the Brand Experience Consultancy, made his name beating the drum for a cross-disciplinary design approach also called everything from “experiential marketing” to “brand experience”.

Call it what you will, experience design, as Ardill presents it, and as the Design Council apparently endorses it, sounds unashamedly manipulative. “For customers,” Ardill explains, “all these moments of corporate experience combine to shape perceptions, motivate their brand commitment and influence the likelihood of repurchase in future … the experiential designer must not only be concerned with the ‘creation’ and ‘content’ of a particular experience. But also with the ‘context’ within which it is to be staged, and the planned ‘consequences’ – in terms of how it seeks to encourage people to think, feel and behave after the event.” Unnecessary inverted commas aside, it could hardly be plainer.

This kind of baloney must go down a treat with clients. It might even sound acceptable when we are talking about other people rather than ourselves. But you only have to put yourself in the picture to see what’s wrong with it. No one with an independent point of view and an ounce of self-respect wants to hear that his or her thoughts, feelings and behaviour are being nudged and even determined by other people who have gathered in meeting rooms to research, plot and calibrate exactly those desired responses. Yet this kind of motivation and methodology is now taken for granted even by the Design Council.

In practice, many of the experiential marketing projects that Ardill mentions seem to be much the same kind of thing – super-sized brand stores that offer an even more concentrated blast of brand essence than a regular shop. There’s the Topshop flagship store on Oxford Street, and the Apple Center, Prada Epicenter and interactive Samsung Experience in New York, although the latter is truly subtle – it’s only for looking and you have to buy the actual product elsewhere. Alongside the predictable Disney World in Florida, Ardill includes an Imagination project, the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, which expresses nothing less than the “Soul of Guinness”, according to Tom Peters. And, no, it’s not just a pleasant drink. It’s all about community and “sharing stories”. It’s a Way of Life.

Increasingly, design exists merely to serve the needs of branding. The language of branding is now so pervasive – some would say corrosive – it has changed the way we think about design. Since 1997, the Parliamentary Design Group, an all-party forum, has tried to raise the standard of debate on design in the Houses of Parliament, to ensure that design is considered during the policy development process, and to “encourage effective design to be procured in the UK in a more serious and sustainable way”. How, you might wonder, are the MPs’ views of design’s purpose and potential to be formed? There are five named advisors from the design business and one of these crucial figures is experiential marketer Ralph Ardill.

Some have high hopes that Gordon Brown will prove to be an informed supporter of design. In his pre-Budget report in December 2005, he responded to Sir George Cox’s “Review of Creativity in Business” by announcing that a Design Programme for Business would be developed to help companies use design. He gave his commitment to a network of creativity and innovation centres to be set up around Britain (whatever they might prove to be) with a “national hub of international stature” in London. Not all the designers present for the chancellor’s speech at the opening of last year’s London Design Festival were convinced that he understood what they were about. Brown will take another crack at it when he opens this year’s New Designers exhibition at the Business Design Centre in London. Inevitably, though, government tends to see design primarily in terms of its contribution to the economy, rather than for what it can add to our quality of life.

Design’s economic importance is undeniable, but the trouble with entrepreneurial diktats about the soul of design is that they are anything but soulful. The business über-gurus and experiential branding consultants are desperate to find a way to bottle and sell us the miraculous elixir of design. The more they drone on about brands as powerful connecting experiences that transcend the product, the more bogus the enterprise starts to sound.

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